Much of the thrill of a Halloween show is to embrace the idea of being scared—or at least getting creeped out to some degree. If neither horror nor fright are apparent, we only hope camp will ham up a show’s enjoyment during an All Hallow’s Eve month. In the past “Rocky Horror Show,” “Evil Dead: The Musical” and “Reefer Madness” all lived up to that tongue-in-cheek frolic encapturing the chilling season at City Stage. Then under the reign of Justin Smith and Chiaki Ito, the dynamic duo set a precedent of making “alternative theatre” something spectacular in Wilmington; they put forth new standards in the City Stage theatre canon and avoided run-of-the-mill classics like “Sound of Music” or “Oklahoma!” This October, the reins have been turned over to new artistic directors Nick Gray and Rachael Moser, who have transformed the company into City Stage Co. and are continuing taking chances on shows not yet seen locally. They’re debuting with “Carrie the Musical,” based on the Stephen King novel.
“Carrie the Musical” made its debut on Broadway in the ‘80s yet failed to culminate in memorable reviews because of script and tech problems. It closed after only a month. A few years ago, it saw a revival on off-Broadway and lasted through 34 previews and 46 performances. It was nominated for many awards‚Drama Desk, Drama League, Outer Critics Circle, and others—and won the Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Musical Revival. Personally, I think the show could use another rewrite from Lawrence D. Cohen (penman of the original 1976 film script and musical) and songwriter Dean Pitchford. Much of the dialogue and lyrics suffer from redundancy; literally the same words are repeated over and over again. It feels like dead weight over two-and-a-half hours (with a 15-minute intermission). The fact is: “Carrie” doesn’t need to be more than an hour-and-a-half long; the movie proved as much true. Secondly, the show’s too-serious undertone makes it preachy instead of scary, creepy or righteously preposterous. Still, it doesn’t mean our local talent doesn’t give it their all. In fact, they’re the saving grace of the show.
The protagonist—an unpopular, sheltered and naive Carrie White—comes courtesy of a phenomenal Hannah Elizabeth Smith. Smith slumps, shakes, scratches her arm in distress, and bulges her eyes in fright with audacity that doesn’t feel forced. Her pale and bare complexion, librarian-inspired attire, and light blonde, always-braided hair add to the yin and yang of a girl out of touch among her popular peers. Other girls are tanned, wear makeup, and sport modern fashions, yet they have no heart. Their bullying tactics and insipid name-calling (Scary White) hits to the core of a girl struggling to fit in, as heard and felt in Smith’s amazing vocal range in the title song “Carrie.” Even in her role to remain in the background to avoid harrassment, she manages to rise to the forefront every time she’s onstage—not an easy task to do with other bombastic actors alongside her.
Of the ilk is Annie Tracy Marsh as Chris and Patrick Basquill as Billy. The couple are the epitome of high-school assholes, always poking fun at others to lift themselves into higher societal order. They fill out these roles to perfection. Marsh—who always impresses with her powerful voice—unfurls as the typical mean girl in “The World According to Chris.” It’s a chilling reminder of how insecurities can yield hateful repercussions.
Though the high-school bullying scenes are heavy in the show, they stand out with greatest impact. Why? They’re most believable. The cast of students interact and talk over each other in an immature, boisterous way at all times, and it definitely evokes laughter—something needed among the heavier scenes between Carrie and her mother. The kids spout disrespect, self-righteous entitlement and hate. Sarah Parsons, Alissa Fetherolf, Domonick Gibbs, Anny Bowmen, Hunter Wyat, Courtney Harding, and others emote with eye rolls aplenty, enunciate and spat with holier-than-thou attitudes, and completely make the audience root for their demise along the way. They’re exactly what you do not want your own children to grow up to be! And when they sing together, it literally takes over the entire theater like the running of the bulls.
The only kids refraining from this grouping are Hannah Lahm as Sue Snell and Brad Mercier as Tommy Ross. Laham and Mercier are adorable in “You Shine”—voices comingling and harmonizing innocently. They absolutely contain an air of true tenderness and empathy. Their fall from popularity anchors the message of choosing compassion and dignity over hostility and acclaim. While it’s a great message to send, it’s also over-exacted to the point of taking away from the fright of “Carrie.” This is a horror show, so the not-so-good parts are what make Carrie’s revenge really founded.
Carrie White’s telekinesis should be a highlight of this musical, as it proves her true power. The show contains only a handful of moments where she shows off: making a Jesus figurine float, raising a book from a desk, moving a chair across the floor, and “closing windows” in her house. By the time she’s pushing people down with her hands and killing them off in the end, it just doesn’t feel plausible. There’s a disconnect in making her power awe-inspiring and frightening. I think some of that stems from a detachment in emotion between Carrie and her mother, played by Katherine Vernon. E
veryone familiar with the story understands the religious zealotry of Margaret is to blame for Carrie’s demise as much as any amount of high-school bullying. The closet Carrie’s forced into for prayer is absolutely a wretched place of imagination in the novel—and in the movie. Its decorated with religious images that scare more than inspire, thanks to the fundamentalist fire-and-brimstone teachings that Margaret White follows. I imagined live it would pulsate in a backdrop of color to taunt Carrie. Yet, its incarnation onstage doesn’t beckon a sliver of dire fear.
Likewise, Vernon delivers Margaret with foreboding dread over intrinsic, appalling intolerance. It’s not clear that she despises her daughter more than she loves her. Her possible personality disorder doesn’t come across heavily, nor does extreme domineering abuse or the self-mutilation she endures. The show only briefly addresses Margaret being raped to conceive Carrie, too. All of this combined needs to heighten in order to believe the blood bath at the finale. While the two actresses share impressive songs that raise the roof—”And Eve Was Weak” and “Evening Prayers”—it doesn’t help the clear divide that must exist between this mother and daughter in order to believe their plights.
In essence, too many gloss-overs exist in the musical version of “Carrie” and take away from the power of fright that makes the story so horrifying. Though the instrumentals are a fascinating backdrop for the story—featuring clear movements of rock, funk, and even blues rhythms—the content needs fear or camp to carry it to its full potential. It’s worth seeing only because our local talent is so good.
Carrie the Musical
City Stage, 21 N Front St #501
Oct. 24 – 26, 31 – Nov. 2, 8 p.m.